Travelling North

Article – Oh, Please: Not Again, Surely!!


Oh, please:  not again, surely!! 

One of the many puzzles in life is why some things seem to be cyclical.  Despite apparently disappearing forever into the wilderness they return, only to disappear again, and so the cycle continues time after time. Such regular returns can be good, of course.  The continuing reappearance of writers who make a real contribution to our lives through fact or fiction is reassuring.  As I am editing these thoughts today, one name, that of Martin Luther King Jr, keeps coming back:  today is the day we recognise that man, and I will say more about that at the end of this commentary.

However, not all returns are good.  Like an actor who can never quite sustain each (unsuccessful) attempt to retire from the stage, so Ayn Rand keeps coming back into the headlines, reappearing on reading lists and re-entering public dialogue.  The question this phenomenon raises is obvious:  given her badly written and poorly argued corpus of fact and fiction what possible justification could there be for yet another round of attention?

In trying to answer this question, it is probably helpful to divide the world of Ayn Rand into two parts:  there are the novels, especially The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged; and there are the various non-fiction books that put forward her ideas about an ‘objectivist philosophy’.

The two major novels are both major and novel.  Major?  Well, both are certainly very long.  Novel?  Both are a mishmash of romance, science fiction, and philosophy, with a bit of mystery thrown in for good luck.  Both have long passages where a protagonist explains, in very considerable detail, the basis for his actions.  The prize goes to Atlas Shrugged which devotes a mini-book length segment to John Galt’s radio broadcast towards the end of the book (it takes up pages 924-979, fifty five pages of small type in my paperback ‘50th Anniversary Edition’):  that man can talk!

I acknowledge that appreciation of fiction is partly a function of personal preferences and interests.  Many people enjoy the form of complicated sexist romance that underpins both books.  Many will enjoy the eventual victory of the individual pursuing his own interest and battling against the odds (and just about everyone else on the planet).  It is good old fashioned misogynist stuff, men overcoming deceit and huge challenges, with the one lone strong woman (who is more like a man than many of the men in the book) providing the romantic interest while being bandied about between the important males of the story.  The two novels provide all this with the added ‘benefit’ of turgid prose allowing the story to move slowly forward, page after page.  I can see there could be many testosterone fuelled and ambitious young men who might like the message of both novels if they could devote enough time to read then through.  After all, the man wins, eventually, and gets the woman in the end too.

As with a number of others, the university business school where I do a little teaching hands out copies of Atlas Shrugged to students:  this generosity is the result of a funding deal for the university that requires every undergraduate to be given a copy in return for a grant to the university to set up a Center.  I am not sure how many actually read the book they have been given, nor if it is subjected to careful and critical analysis.  I suspect a lot would agree the books are too long; I am sure many fail to finish them; and certainly both could do with some severe editing.  I would not be surprised to learn that many students find the book both offensive and chauvinistic.

Whatever you may feel about their quality, their rating by some as being among the ten greatest novels of the 20th Century is, quite simply, bizarre.  To be clear, they are non-fiction disguised as fiction, bereft of insight into the psyche of the characters, serving only to offer a dramatic and romanticised illustration of the objectivist philosophy.  Opening Atlas Shrugged at random, we read:

‘Dr. Robert Stadler waited until the door had closed on them, then whirled on Mr Thompson.  “You bloody fool!  Do you know what you’re playing with?  Don’t you understand that it’s life or death?  That it’s you or him?”

The thin tremor that ran long Mr. Thompson’s lips was a smile of contempt.  “It’s a funny way for a professor to behave.  I didn’t think professors ever went to pieces.”

‘Don’t you understand?  Don’t you see it is one or the other?”

“And what is it you want me to do?”

“You must kill him.”

It was the fact that Dr. Stadler had not cried it, but had said it in a flat, cold, suddenly and fully conscious voice, that brought a chill moment of silence as the whole room’s answer.

“You must find him, “ said Dr. Stadler, his voice cracking and rising once more.  “You must leave no stone unturned till you find him and destroy him!  If he lives, he’ll destroy all of us!  If he lives, we can’t!”

‘How am I to find him?” asked Mr. Thompson, speaking slowly and carefully.’

(Page 984, Ibid)

Great stuff?  Well, I did like the line about professors!

They are just fiction, and many do enjoy them.  More critical might be the second part of Rand’s output, and what she means by an objectivist philosophy.  For the purposes of this brief set of comments, there are two aspects to ‘Objectivism’ of particular note:  these relate to its epistemological basis, and its ethics.

On the former, her objectivist philosophy is based on the view that human knowledge and human values are objective: they exist in reality, to be discovered by analytical reasoning, and are not created by the thoughts one has.  Rand characterized objectivism as “a philosophy for living on earth”, grounded in reality, and aimed at defining human nature and the nature of the world in which we live.  For this reason, Rand’s books use a scientistic, empirical and logical framework that she presents as unarguable:  a philosophy of ‘that’s the way it is, and it can be no other, since perception is reality’.  It is a view that ignores all we have learnt about cognition, sensory systems and the role of mental models over the past hundred years or more: it is a view most philosophers would dismiss as simplistic, possibly interesting, and almost certainly misleading.

More important in terms of its impact on social issues is Ayn Rand’s ethics: “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”  The implications of this view are clear.  It is an argument that a person’s moral purpose is to pursue ‘rational’ self-interest, and hence a justification for giving precedence to individual rights, and laissez-faire capitalism.  Consistent with that view is the associated argument that government should only be concerned with controlling the use of physical force (the police, armed forces), the provision of law courts to allow the resolution of disputes between individuals, and little else. Rand saw the government as only having any rights where these have been explicitly delegated to it by the citizens as a whole.  This is the philosophical justification of small government; a theme much favoured right now by many who would be the next US President.

Ayn Rand makes it clear that the pursuit of individual happiness can only be achieved through one’s own efforts:

 “Living in a society, instead of on a desert island, does not relieve a man of the responsibility of supporting his own life. The only difference is that he supports his life by trading his products or services for the products or services of others. And, in this process of trade, a rational man does not seek or desire any more or any less than his own effort can earn. What determines his earnings? The free market, that is: the voluntary choice and judgment of the men who are willing to trade him their effort in return.

When a man trades with others, he is counting—explicitly or implicitly—on their rationality, that is: on their ability to recognize the objective value of his work. (A trade based on any other premise is a con game or a fraud.) Thus, when a rational man pursues a goal in a free society, he does not place himself at the mercy of whims, the favors or the prejudices of others; he depends on nothing but his own effort: directly, by doing objectively valuable work—indirectly, through the objective evaluation of his work by others.”

(The Conflicts of Men’s Interests, pages 2-3)

Here, of course, we have it.  In this huge body of work we find the justification that one can pursue his or her own self-interest without any concern for others, except to note that they, too, are free to pursue theirs.  The fact that the laissez-faire capitalism system that supports the primacy of individual self-interest inevitably leads to vast discrepancies in wealth and income is irrelevant.  The way the system is portrayed can be summarised as follows: if you work hard, following rational principles and understanding, then you will successful, you may become rich and you will be happy; sadly and conversely, if you fail to work hard then you will be miserable and poor.  Why, because success is a result of the work you put in, isn’t it?  Those who adopt the objectivist approach merely have to point out that it is through lack of effort that others fail to succeed.  It may be a little unfortunate that social mobility (and even more so wealth mobility) in the US is very low: indeed it is also lower than in almost every other country in the world (even lower than the rate those socialist Scandinavian countries, as I believe they are described by many people).  Obviously the US has a lot of people who are not making enough effort!

On this topic, Ayn Rand makes it all clear:

“Since a rational man knows that man must achieve his goals by his own effort, he knows that neither wealth nor jobs nor any human values exist in a given, limited, static quantity, waiting to be divided. He knows that all benefits have to be produced, that the gain of one man does not represent the loss of another, that a man’s achievement is not earned at the expense of those who have not achieved it.”

(Ibid, page 3)

So let me see if I have got this clear.  In the case of the CEO who ‘rationally’ maximises company profits and his personal income by screwing down the pay of the factory workers, or outsources manufacturing to a lower cost country, is his gain not “at the loss of another”?  Self-interested people who gain by exploiting the credulity of others, who use every means at their disposal to frustrate the opportunities of competitors, legal or illegal, are simply pursuing their own happiness?  All’s fair in love and war, because each person is acting rationally in his or her own self-interest, and everyone does the same.

I wonder how many of those who talk about the individual’s need to pursue his or her happiness have reflected on the world recently described in Alice Goffman’s book On the run.  Objectively, many of those kids living on 6th Street in Philadelphia learn very early in life that the only work they can get is illegal: selling drugs, stealing.  As a result, these youngsters live their lives on the run from the police, unable to establish a stable family base.  Ayn Rand would tell them that this is an issue about rationality and context:  they should understand that they should not do in the short term what would damage their interests in the long term, and that their success was entirely in their own hands.  Alas, when the issue is survival, then what is rational is doing whatever is rational in the circumstances you face:  you can’t sit around waiting for the world to change.  These youngsters are not stupid:  they well understand the world in which they live, and the only ways they have available to survive in it.

Where has all this self-serving nonsense led to today?  One of Rand’s constant themes was that society is full of ‘moochers’, parasites living off the work of others.  You may recall that Mitt Romney understood that to be the case, unfortunately saying so in a meeting where he thought he was only talking to those who worked hard – like him:

“There are 47 per cent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right? There are 47 per cent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement, and that government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49 — he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven per cent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect.”

47%?  Perhaps the facts were a little simplified when he implied that 47% of Americans paid no tax, a 47% that he might have described as moochers, even.  It turns out that most of the 47% of Americans who aren’t paying income taxes don’t get away tax free: Nearly two-thirds pay payroll taxes.  Moreover, of that smaller group that pays no income taxes or payroll taxes, more than half are elderly, and over a third are low-income, earning less than $20,000 a year.  Indeed, when we turn to look at the people who do rely on government funding we find they are a diverse group of stakeholders, including everyone from veterans receiving health care from the V.A., to farmers receiving subsidies, to students receiving college loans:  not not just the poor and the elderly, but a wider group that most would see as equally deserving of support.

A key word in this seems to be entitlement.   We certainly live in a world of entitlement, where many people feel that it is their right to …. to whatever they feel they should have.  I see that with students today. In one class recently I confronted entitlement to a level I had not met before.  It was one of the final courses in their degree:  time, I felt, to do what I usually did, which was to move people around, so that they would work and learn from a new group of fellow students.  The resistance from some was incredible:  ‘I’ve sat here for the whole of this program, with these same people around me, and you are suggesting we have to move in the last few weeks of our studies.’  That caused a ruckus, but eventually everyone moved: learning is more important than superficial comfort.  Then I outlined one of the assessment tasks for the course: ‘Read a book and write a critical review?’  Another ruckus: read a book, and review it?  They were at the end of the program, and were entitled to finish with as little change and as little work as possible.

Yes entitlement is a problem.  Not the entitlement to social welfare, health services or a good education.  No, the entitlement of the affluent to get a degree on their way to a well-paid job, and their continuing place in the elite.  An entitlement to a good mark in every course.  The entitlement of the privileged to pursue their happiness by pursuing their own self interest.

When I read Ayn Rand, I am amazed that such dated stuff could possibly be relevant today.  What would Ayn Rand have thought of a contemporary ‘hero’, someone like Jessica Jones, perhaps?  Here is another one of those fascinating Marvel characters, in this case fond of violence, sex, and serious drinking:  interesting to many young viewers, no doubt, if a little too hard living and outlandish for the rest of us.  It is true she has ‘special abilities’ rather than the driven and extra-ordinary self-confidence of a Howard Roark, but in many other ways she is a woman who meets so many of Rand’s criteria.  If you haven’t seen the television series, she is objectively rational, strong, determined and principled (and, incidentally uses and abuses men much as Rand’s men treat women in her books):  she’s a Dagny Taggart if ever I saw one.  Oh, but there is just one small but critical difference.  Even though she lives on the dark side and enjoys it, Jessica is another Marvel hero who strives to do good and focuses her actions on improving the lot of the weak and marginalised.  She is motivated to make the world a better place, to work for the interest of others, not her own self-satisfaction.  For some of us, that is a far more moral motivator than the individual pursuit of personal happiness and self-interest.

All these words about Ayn Rand, whereas I should have written about Martin Luther King.  He is someone who should keep reappearing.  If you want to read something worthwhile, try his Why we can’t wait, and especially the Letter from Birmingham City Jail.  To learn more about the extraordinary people in the civil rights movement who embody is their very real lives the exact opposite of Rand’s fictional characters, Taylor Branch’s trilogy America in the King Years is essential reading, especially the first two volumes, Parting the waters and Pillar of fire.  Read them now to realise what was achieved; read them now to realise what we are in danger of losing:  will we ever return to an era where it is the interests of everyone around us that drive our aspirations?  Where community matters more than narrow self-interest?

January 2016

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